“It’d be a funny old world, he reflected, if demons went round trusting one another.”
- Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
Austin swallows past the urge to vomit. The collar of the dress jacket Naberius sent up to his quarters is just slightly too tight, pressing uncomfortably against his Adam’s apple. He hooks a finger into it and tugs, trying to give himself more room to breathe, catching sight of himself in the floor-length mirror as he does so. Against the dark fabric of his new clothes, he looks very, very pale. The bruise-dark circles underneath his eyes are even more prominent, the mousy brown roots of his hair too light against the rest of it, still dyed dark auburn, but fading fast.
It’s his third night in Hell. Austin remains surprised both that Hell has a stable day-night cycle, and that no one has tried to come looking for him yet. Naberius has assured him that time in Hell passes differently, so that he’ll only be missing for a day at most, even if he spends a whole week in Hell. But there’s no way to test it, until Naberius lets him go home. Austin wishes he had a way to call home, to let Richard and Landis and Otter know he’s okay - well, as okay as one can get, living in Hell. He wonders what Richard told the others. Are they panicking? Or do they think he can handle this on his own?
Austin swallows again. His throat feels a little less constrained. He takes a deep breath, blinking several times, feeling, impossibly, hungry. The kitchen downstairs has been bustling with activity all day, in preparation for the party, the smell of cooking meat wafting up the stairs in waves. Austin isn’t completely sure what demons eat, but hopefully Naberius will have thought to put something human-friendly on the menu.
“Ready?” a voice asks from the doorway.
Austin turns, startled, to see Morse leaning there, arms folded over his chest. He’s dressed in his usual uniform, albeit with a gold vest instead of a red one, and looks about as happy to be here as Austin feels.
“Not really,” Austin says, his voice low. Morse laughs.
“Yeah. I figured.”
Austin balls his hands into fists and looks up at the ceiling, blinking even more furiously. Stupid. Stupid, to be so homesick, when he’s probably only been gone a few hours on Earth. He’ll be back before Otter and Landis can even really figure out what to do about it. Not that they could do anything from where they are, anyway. Just worry, or tell each other that Austin’s fine, Austin’s perfectly capable, Austin’s handled demons before, so this should be nothing for him.
“Didn’t think you were one to get cold feet about something like this,” Morse remarks, stepping into the room to fuss with Austin’s jacket, undoing the top button and tugging on it to straighten it out.
“I’m fine,” Austin insists, brushing Morse’s hands away.
Morse’s skin - or what passes for it - has a strange, humanlike warmth that’s hard to get used to. Austin’s never seen anything quite like him before. At first he assumed Morse was some kind of shadow person, but after asking Naberius, found that Morse was actually a familiar created out of ink, and given sentience. The magic behind it is more than Austin can wrap his head around, but he knows that it makes Morse an outsider like him, someone who gets odd looks from Naberius’s friends and regular servants. Though maybe Austin’s so desperate for someone who isn’t Naberius to talk to that he’s just projecting his own issues onto someone else.
“I thought Nab told you to do something with your hair,” Morse says, and Austin narrows his eyes.
“And you didn’t.” Morse sighs, lips twitching into a resigned smile. “Well, no time to do anything about it now, I guess. I imagine Nab will just be thankful you’re actually wearing the clothes he gave you.”
“He’s assuming the worst,” Austin says, slowly unclenching his hands. He can feel his palms stinging where his fingernails bit into them, the pain tethering him back to the present, yanking his mind away from imaginary scenarios of home. “I’ve been to parties like this before. I know how to act.”
Morse gives him an odd look. “Really?”
“Is that so surprising?” Austin asks.
“You just don’t seem like the type.”
“I grew up in a rich family,” Austin says, and offers nothing else. He sidesteps Morse to grab a ribbon off the dresser, deftly pulling his hair back into a small ponytail and tying it off, pulling his bangs free so that they still fall into his face. “How’s that?”
“Cute,” Morse says dryly.
This really isn’t so different than Hart family parties, Austin tells himself, feeling his body relax a little. His and Jacob’s foster family threw extravagant house parties, banquets and fundraisers, as often as they could get away with it. As long as he thinks of this like another one of those, it should be a breeze to get through. And it’s the same principle, really. Getting dressed up and socializing with strangers so that someone can show you off. Maybe this one will even be interesting. Demons have to be better for conversation than heiresses and CEOs.
“So what are the other demons like?” Austin asks, examining himself in the mirror again, stalling for time to shake the last of his anxiety off.
Morse laughs. “Honestly? Kind of stuck up, and way too invested in social status and political power. I imagine a lot of them are only here so they can gossip about Nab later, or to meet you so they can judge you for themselves.”
“So, don’t do anything embarrassing.” Austin snorts. It really is just the same. “Got it.”
“I’m sure they’d all love you if you did do something to embarrass Nab, but for your sake, I would try not to.” Morse reaches up to fiddle with Austin’s bangs, finally settling for tucking a few loose locks of hair behind one of his ears. Austin makes a face.
“Is there going to be music?” he asks.
“Of course,” Morse says, giving him a look like he shouldn’t even have needed to ask. “The more pertinent question is, can you dance?”
Austin shoots a very similar look back at Morse. “I did say I grew up in a rich family, didn’t I?”
“Oh, they’re going to love you,” Morse says under his breath. He puts a hand on Austin’s back and pushes Austin forward, towards the door. “Come on, Mr. Darcy, let’s get out there and knock ‘em dead. Just don’t step on anyone’s toes.”
“Literally or figuratively?” Austin asks with a wicked grin. Maybe having a party to distract him won’t be so bad after all.
“Both,” Morse says, with a gravity in his voice that indicates he really means it.